Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SCREAM: Looking Back At a Great Opening Moment

This weekend, the Coolidge Corner Theater kicks off their Nightmares on Harvard Street special program, featuring the films of Wes Craven. This Friday and Saturday at Midnight, slasher favorite Scream will begin the month long extravaganza. For more info and this month's schedule click here or visit Coolidge Corner Theater's Website.

Before I became a full fledged horror buff, Scream was one of the few horror movies I truly loved. Sure it scared the crap out of me, but I would watch it religiously, almost as much as I watched Babe the Gallant Pig (which was everyday). I can remember trying to fall asleep the night after I had watched it. The little screw on my ceiling light slowly began morphing itself into the ghostface mask, and I spent the entire night with my light on. I was positive that at any moment, the "killer" would knock down my door and kill me. There was something so real to me about Scream, and in many ways I still feel that same way. There's no supernatural killer, no mutant little boy who died and is now killing people, no boogeyman who kills people in their sleep. Scream featured a very real scenario with very real people--and that scared the hell out of me.

I've spoken before on this but I still can't ever seem to let go of how wonderful it is, that we are immediately thrown into the happenings. No 20 minute crap characterization, or setting the scene up for meeting our killer for the first time. There aren't even any opening credits--only a ringing phone, and an answered phone.

A less frequently talked about part of this opening is the 2nd time that the phone rings. After politely responding to the caller that they have the wrong number, Drew Barrymore's character Casey, hangs up the phone, turns and walks away. The phone then rings again, there is a beat, and Casey slowly turns around to stare at the phone for a brief moment--the subtlest hint of worry starting to appear on her face.

There is no scary music to tell us that we should be scared, rather we sense it in her body language and the overall tone. Even if we know the overall premise of the film that first initial call will still catch us off guard because it's so sudden. The 2nd call however and Casey's reaction causes us to be fully aware how this will all go down.

Now, as I'm sure many of you are aware, killing off a star like Drew Barrymore early in the film was to some a big surprise. Harking back to Psycho and Janet Leigh's infamous early departure, it was actually Drew, who opted for the role of Casey over Sydney. I for one cannot imagine Drew Barrymore playing Sydney (I remain unconvinced that the majority of her acting surpasses her esteemed performance in E.T.) and I still feel irksome about poster's proudly displaying Drew Barrymore front and center. We can't have it all I suppose.

What I really wanted to talk about however was the unsung hero of the opening scene and the major question on everyone's mind...

Who is Steve Orth? Can anyone even identify who the actor is? What does he look like? The poor guy auditioned for the role of Billy Loomis and was instead granted the great pleasure of being the boyfriend taped to a patio chair and being gutted. I don't even know what he looks like without a giant piece of duck tape covering his mouth. I will now take this moment to shed some life on this poor guy. His name is Kevin Patrick Walls and this is what he looks like without duck tape covering his mouth.

Is it weird I like him better with the duck tape? Anyways. Now you know who Steve Orth is.

What I always found most troubling about the opening murder is how relentlessly brutal it is. After this scene, the movies dips up and down in moments of humor and terror but this scene, and the stabbing of Casey is an entirely different ball game. Watching it back now, I start to pick up on a feeling I felt when watching The Last House on the Left for the first time---sadness. In a lot of horror movies we watch, we become accustomed to rooting for the annoying characters to kick the bucket. Here, we feel a strange sense of hopelessness and depression. Casey's parents are literally 20 feet away from her as she gets brutally stabbed. The stabbing is gutsier and more brutal than most of the horror films I have seen and yet it seldom gets mentioned. When Casey gets stabbed in the throat it's like we can feel the knife pierce our own flesh.

It's just so in your face and so off putting it drives me nuts with emotion. We are crushed when we see Casey's parents at the front door, and the little figure of Casey unsuccessfully crying out for help in the background.

Her parent's worry and the tone in their voice kills me every time. Her mother's scream when she finds Casey's body hanging from a tree is devastating. This is I think what freaked me out the most about this film when I saw it growing up. There's a certain amount of protection you expect from your parents when you are little. In the moment where Casey's parents car is seen, and they get out from the car, there's an odd sense of relief. As you know however, the presence of her parents in no way affects her outcome. She is brutally killed steps away from her own parents. This killed me when I was little. To think that one night when home alone, this same situation could happen and that my parent's wouldn't even be able to prevent it, sent serious chills down my spine.

Even still watching this scene today, I have a hard time coming to terms with the way everything plays out. It remains today as one of the most surprisingly brutal depictions of murder that I've seen---and that says a lot.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Four Flies on Grey Velvet: WARNING! Cat Trauma.

After a somewhat long hiatus of Dario Argento watching, I have resumed play with Four Flies on Grey Velvet and I couldn't be happier about my comeback. Initially my worry began when I tried to imagine how something named after an ugly old fly could carry the same beautiful mystique that so many Argento films possess. Call me shallow if you want, but I hate flies and I just didn't see what place they had in Argento's animals trilogy. Bird with the Crystal Plumage? Sounds magnificently exotic and luxurious. Cat O Nine Tails? Aside from the fact that that is a torture weapon, I love cats which means...gloriousness. But flies? Four flies? Yuck. As it turns out there is a bit of juxtaposition having to do with the film's title and what it actually means. If you have seen this film than you know, that what the four flies on grey velvet turns out to be, is actually quite oddly beautiful after all and that I think is one of the best ways to describe a Dario Argento film.

After accidentally killing a man whom he believes was following him, Roberto, a foxy musician begins being blackmailed by someone who witnessed the crime take place. Through a series of threatening photographs and nighttime visits, Roberto realizes what he is dealing with may be very dangerous indeed.

I immediately noticed something that greatly interested me when dealing with Argento. While his later films and typically beginning with Suspiria and what comes after--mostly deal with an extravagance in the death department, Argento's early Giallo seem to concern itself with a more simplistic look that still manages to speak volumes in effectiveness. Sure, there may be the occasional inklings of future extravagant death scenes

but for the most part, a lot of what we see has a very striking minimalist attitude about it.

Shots with one abnormally long shadow that take over the frame for example, or characters immersed in black backgrounds instead of being slathered in deep reds and blues--are key elements that set Argento's early films apart from his later ones. The most intriguing aspect about this shift is that I can't say either mode is any less affective. The man knows how to make a beautiful movie and that is that. I found myself deeply in love with so much of what was going on, and nothing felt lengthy and boring because it was all so astounding to look at. It's very possible that Four Flies has entered itself into my top 5 Argento films list---possibly even taking the number 3 spot away from Phenomena and I'm tempted to even push it ahead of Deep Red. Blasphemous I know, but I can't keep my feelings in.

I should warn all cat and animal aficionados that there is a very terrible scene involving a cat, and said cat being killed and stuffed into a plastic bag. TMI? Sorry, I just feel that it's better to give it to you up front when matters such as these are involved. Now that I've told you, you can wipe it clear from your brain.

Now, one of my favorite things about Argento is that you can look at a scene like this

and instantly realize that nothing was by accident. From the intricate detail on the curtains to the way that the scene is bursting with green--we know that everything about this scene was crafted with a very particular eye. I love this. I love that a horror movie can affect me in such a way that it causes me to to forget about the absence of blood and gore and allows me to become hypnotized by the environment that we are put into. It's almost like this magical sigh of relief that makes it okay to show the world how I feel about the genre we all love. Horror is beautiful and this is how I can prove it.

I was also very surprised and shocked to find another film that employs a similar scare tactic to that of the Exorcist. I did not expect for instance to see this terrifying face flash suddenly on the screen without warning. Isn't it strange how different it looks in the dark and in the light? Gloriously strange, and its not an accident either.

Honestly what is that? That's the scariest looking mask that I've ever seen a killer wear. Perhaps one of my only huge complaints is that this mask is never really utilized again to the effect that it is in this scene. This is a pity, as it truly is an astounding mask. While we are on the subject of minor complaints I do wish that the mystery of the four flies was introduced a bit earlier into the plot. It would keep a certain mystique flowing nicely throughout because the image really is so perplexing. Before it gets introduced, we seem to be hunting blindly for any old person. Literally everyone and anything is suspect until the simple image of the four flies makes its entrance causing us to stay alert for a very major clue.

Like I said before, I couldn't be happier to find out what the four flies represented and how it speaks volumes about Argento's work as a whole. I guess I can SPOIL this because I like talking about it. I'm guessing most of you have seen this anyways but in case you haven't look away now!

FACT: Flies are ugly. What also is a fact is that death is commonly ugly and a terrible thing. What the Four Flies does however is take the ugly, nasty fly and turn it into a beautiful piece of jewelry. Argento does this similarly with death in his movies by turning each death scene into a work of art rather than what it really is in actuality.

Isn't that genius? I can really think of no better metaphor for Argento than a fly encased in stone and worn as a necklace.

Not only is Four Flies insanely beautiful in almost every way possible, but it also utilizes things that I find absent from much of Argento's later work. The presence of comedy is perhaps the biggest. I find that it actually adds a much appreciated dose of pep and dark humor--something that sends me back fondly to my days of worshipping Alfred Hitchcock in the 2nd grade. The coffin showcase for instance seemed so closely aligned to a Hitchcock film, with that same air of appreciated funniness no matter what your age, that I found it difficult not to search for the existence of a blatant rip off.

It makes sense, since Argento was often called the Italian Hitchcock back in his early days and moments like that coffin scene and almost all of the murder scenes--prove this fact quite admirably.

I could probably blab on and on about this film for hours, but I'll save you from the agony. Hands down this will probably become my 2nd favorite Argento film in one or two more viewings. The colors are supreme and each and every shot had me reeling with the kind of excitement that I have really only felt before with Bava. And I should mention rightfully so as much of this film is certainly influence by Bava--as evidence by this silly bathtub scene when put against my very favorite Bava screen shot of all time.

I will leave you with this stunning shot of a shattering car windshield.

Photographed so subtely and calmly that it almost looks like glistening water, a gentle wave whispering over the surface of a quiet lake. Ah, pure and exquisite beauty.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Critters: I Prefer More Billy Zane With My Critters

If you remember my review of C.H.U.D I had been sadly misinformed by... myself that C.H.U.D contained the creatures known as Critters. Apparently I mixed up the box covers in my head--sue me. As it turns out, C.H.U.D. is a delightful movie compared to Critters, although the actual Critters are better looking than those pesky Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers are. As an entire film however, Critters is kind of boring.

Here are 5 omens that warned me of the impending doom concerning my viewing of Critters.

#1. Finding out that Johnny Steele was not a real singer.

Having not recognized Terrance Mann in anything, I was just about ready to search Ebay for a Johnny Steele poster to put in my bedroom (on the ceiling). I was so excited when the TV recording of Johnny's performance turned into the REAL THING that I smiled really big and became hypnotized by the fog and laser light show.

But then that alien bounty hunter morphed into him and I knew, I knew my dreams had been dashed. Unless we're dealing with Jon Bon Jovi, a stud muffin rock star will just not be able to act you know, good and stuff.

#2. Billy Zane's character died too quickly.

Hopefully most of you realize that the less time that Billy Zane is in a movie, the sadder the earth becomes. I'm not sure why this is, but I'm pretty sure it's been proven at least 3 times at Harvard. I think it has to do with his dreamy face but I'm not sure. In any case, I was all excited to see Billy and then all unexcited to see him get his stomach eaten by a Critter.

#3 The Critters remind me of the California Raisins

For reasons as yet unexplained, I really detest the California Raisins.

In elementary school my best friend had California Raisin bed sheets and they used to make me physically ill. I would fantasize about destroying them and then fly away on a magical bicycle pump that transported me to a glorious rainbow. Wait...that was a different dream. Anyways, the Critters are pretty frickin cool looking, but because their thick fur/head of hair reminds me of the California Raisins, I get physically ill. Apparently the California Raisins do not have hair. I must be confusing them with James Brown.

#4 Pinbusters makes me long for Ghostbusters. (Obviously)

Besides being stupid, the bowling team's logo of Pinbusters makes my mind wander to the beautiful day I had yesterday basking in the gloriousness that is--Ghostbusters. Long story short, I wish I was watching Ghostbusters instead of Critters.

#5. Is this suppose to be E.T.?

Seriously, the worst representation of E.T. that I have ever seen. My cat can draw a better picture of E.T. with her butt. Which brings up a good point, is this really supposed to be E.T.? I don't remember him having eyebrows.

Okay so I was doomed from the get go practically. As much as I wanted to love Critters for its likeliness to Gremlins and because I confused it with C.H.U.D--it just wasn't in the cards. It is an interesting spin on the home invasion scenario but for the most part I found myself yawning on more than one occasion. The bulk of the matter is, that the Critters don't get enough screen time, and by screen time I mean moments of subtitled amazingness. More Critters! That's all this film really needs (and more Billy Zane obvs). I felt like way too much (boring) time was spent on the (boring) family in (boring) Kansas. It took quite a long time for any action to happen and I found myself just getting more and more tired of it.

Oh right you may want to know what it is about. Well, some Critters (or Krites I guess is what they're called...I will continue to call them Critters. I mean the film isn't called Kritters is it?) break out of space prison and land in Kansas on a dumb farm . Bounty hunters are after them and the Critters pester a boring family and their cat. Thankfully the cat makes it out alive. SPOILER ALERT Billy Zane does not.

Where was I? Oh yes. So, while I did appreciate how the Critters rolled around, and how awesome they looked barring there million rows of pointed teeth, I was just kind of underwhelmed after a while. It's fun the first few times a Critter latches itself onto an unsuspecting person, but then it just becomes the same old thing. Sure, Dee Wallace Stone toting a shotgun is pretty neat, but running out of ammo so quickly is not. There's a lot of that in fact--something awesome and then that awesome gets quickly dashed. What's up with that? I want awesome all the time okay?

I guess I just can't find too much to love about Critters. I like Gremlins better. I even like Gremlins 2 better. And I definitely like C.H.U.D better. Love the Critters in general but your movie? Well it kind of stinks. I would however like a Critters stuffed animal for my birthday. That is all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Devils: Naked Nuns Everywhere

My tiring quest to watch The Devils began when I was researching Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The film is not on the list, but it is talked about on AMC's Scariest Movie Moments and Scenes list, which is a site I used more frequently to generate my must see list. Upon coming up on the little paragraph about The Devils, I was floored by the picture of naked nuns in a complete frenzy.

Reading the little synopsis on why it made the list drove my interest home.

In this sadomasochistic story adapted from Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudon", there were numerous scenes of orgiastic and crazed, nude, head-shaved nuns, including the exorcism of the wicked, sexually-repressed, and deformed (hunch-backed) Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave); also the frenzied scene of the climactic torture / burning at the stake of the promiscuous rebel priest Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) as the crazed, self-righteous priests shouted out: "Confess. Beg forgiveness" to which Grandier responded: "I am about to meet the God who is my witness. And I have spoken the truth"; as his pyre was lit, the hysterical priest cried: "May your body be consumed by eternal fire" - as his body was licked by flames without the benefit of being strangled first.

Orgiastic nuns? Yes please. It's not that I had a sexual drive to watch nuns strip and frolic and rape a statue of Jesus, it's just that...watching nuns strip and frolic and rape a statue of Jesus is not something you see everyday--and certainly not something you see in a 1971 film that isn't porn. The film is also regarded as one of the most controversial films of all time. When people offend religion...serious shit goes down. I had it in my mind that watching The Devils would be like watching 20 nuns being exorcised at the same time while in a crazy naked frenzy. Luckily that is pretty much the case, but the story is so much more interesting than all this naked nun business would have you believe.

In the small French town of Loudon, the women are entranced by Father Grandier, a priest who seems to pay little attention to that whole no sex thing. Apparently the women thinks he's the sexiest thing since sliced bread--I mean they're right,

right? Well that's debatable at least. Anyways. Deformed hunchback Sister Jeanne, (Vanessa Redgrave!) who is the head of the local convent, makes it very clear that she is secretly obsessed with Grandier. While watching him pass by, she hides in a tiny room and quietly writhes and sweats as he passes. She masturbates in a fevered frenzy, and fantasizes about doing the nasty with him. When word reaches the convent that Grandier has married a woman, she becomes livid and inadvertently accuses Grandier of seducing her with the devil's charms.

It is not long before the town and a "professional" witch-hunter becomes involved, and they try to exorcise her demons. The other nuns join in to protect themselves and Sister Jeanne from being excommunicated causing the church to be run amok with naked nuns exclaiming about devils. Grandier is put on trial as the town gets wrapped up deeper and deeper in its mess.

There is a whole other element of course, dealing with the political and religious ratifications as implemented by Cardinal Richelieu's influence over Louis XIII. This is important after all, as Loudon remains the only town unwilling to have their city destroyed in favor of eliminating all Protestant threats. Bringing down Grandier is their #1 priority, and convicting him of consorting with the devil is a fine plan indeed.

The thing I was most surprised about is how watchable the movie actually is. With a movie like this, I expected the only enthralling thing to be the famous nun orgy, but I was quite wrong. The performances are pretty outstanding in this, and even though Oliver Reed creeps me out as Father Grandier, you cannot deny the strange allure he seems to possess. Vanessa Redgrave however easily steals the show. There are few things I have seen that have resonated more with me, than seeing Vanessa Redgrave appear through the door with her back hunched and her head tilted to the side in some kind of grotesque beautiful way.

Her hateful vengeance as acted out on the other sisters and then seeing her enter the secret little closet and masturbate as Father Grandier approaches, practically made my head explode.

Everything that leads up to the famous orgiastic scenes creates anticipation, but what we see along the way is still captivating. This is perhaps what makes me feel saddest about this film is that because of the harsh censor ships, barely anyone has even seen it--and it is a great film. I should have mentioned this earlier but one of the reasons I had such a hard time fulfilling my desire to see this film has to do with how difficult it was to track down a decent copy. The only way it seemed possible was by ordering some bootleg copy from London. Still fuzzy on how that whole bootleg/ being arrested and fined a million dollars for pirating works, I decided it was best to wait. When the film was originally released it was edited down so much that entire chunks of the film were missing. I didn't want to risk getting a copy without all the good stuff, so my worry and anticipation increased even more. About a week ago I discovered a $5 copy of the film on Amazon, which promised the original 111 minute version, restored and containing interviews with the director and actors. Clearly my wishes had been granted. The quality isn't very good, but who really cares when the possibility of seeing naked nuns frolic on a church altar is imminent!?

One thing I was not expecting was how beautiful and breathtaking the set pieces and some images would be. There are moments in The Devils that just cry out my name.

Towering crosses, suggesting Gothic influences and inklings of the devil in a setting where the devil is least wanted. It once again just boggles my mind. I love this film, I love all the shouting, and the head shaved nuns, and the naked nuns literally swinging from the chandeliers.

It's like I wanted posters of the entire process plastered all over my room and I don't care how many judgmental looks and stares I receive.

Now brace yourselves because the part when I talk about the nun frenzy has arrived. Was it everything I had imagined it would be? Hardly. And by that I mean that I could never have guessed how utterly ridiculous it would be. Forced enemas, naked bodies grinding all over a Jesus, no matter how well I describe it you won't believe what it happening until you see it for yourself. Aside from the nun debauchery, there is also all sorts of other ridiculous happening as well! From Louis XIII's opening dance number,

to his shooting Protestants game,

to the town's crazy ways of celebrating is really all too marvelous.

The films climax is powerful and surprisingly brutal. Who know the true way to destroy Father Grandier was by taking away from him the only thing that made him appealing?

Overall, The Devils is a delight of a movie. Not for everyone I'm sure, but it's worth watching at least for the infamous nun debauchery, which earned its status of one of the most edited films of all time (Is that true? I half made that up. But probably true). And if your interest surpasses nun debauchery, you'll find intrigue in the films compelling story. An interesting combination of historical account, and complete artistic freedom. I urge you to seek it out, and uncover a piece of cinematic history that's slowly making it's way back to the light.